President Trump on Thursday assumed the role of leading spokesman for the racially charged cause of preserving Confederate statues on public grounds, couching his defense in historical terms that thrilled his core supporters and signaled his intent to use cultural strife as a political weapon just days after deadly violence in Virginia.
“Sad to see the history and culture of our great country being ripped apart with the removal of our beautiful statues and monuments,” Trump wrote on Twitter.
“So foolish!” he added, bemoaning efforts in several municipalities to take down Confederate tributes.
Trump’s celebration of monuments from a dark chapter of American history sparked wide debate over its consequences for his embattled presidency and the nation’s civic fabric, as well as over the challenges facing both parties as he delves into the culture wars.
A chorus of Republicans expressed alarm over Trump’s words and their potential cost with voters. But Trump’s allies inside and outside the White House, most notably White House chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon, argued that Trump’s pronouncements would rally his political base — while also serving as a welcome distraction from the policy stumbles and investigations that have hobbled the administration.
Democrats reacted with horror at Trump’s enthusiasm for memorials to the Confederacy more than 150 years after the end of the Civil War and just five days after white nationalist and neo-Nazi protests in Charlottesville left one woman dead and at least 19 more people injured.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and others harshly condemned Trump’s statements and called for the removal of Confederate statues from the halls of the U.S. Capitol. Some veteran Democrats, meanwhile, said Trump’s remarks seemed aimed at rousing his base.
“He’s hitting a raw and ugly political nerve around a certain segment of the electorate,” said Democratic consultant Robert Shrum. “But that’s not enough to sustain him to get things done as president or get reelected.”
Trump’s comments came as he also ratcheted up his rhetoric on the threat of Muslim extremists in the wake of a deadly van attack Thursday in Barcelona. Taking to Twitter, Trump recycled a discredited tale that he had promoted during the 2016 campaign, asserting that Gen. John J. Pershing had ordered that bullets be dipped in pigs’ blood and used to execute Islamic terrorists in the Philippines. Historians have widely debunked the story as a fabrication.
Inside the White House, Trump advisers said the president is being guided chiefly by his own instincts, chafing at critical news coverage of his handling of the Charlottesville protests and charges of racism.
Bannon — a hard-line nationalist whose position has been threatened in recent days by his clashes with moderate colleagues and his blunt remarks to a liberal magazine — has fiercely defended Trump in internal staff discussions, according to White House officials.
In an email to The Washington Post on Thursday, Bannon said Democrats do not understand Trump and underestimate his appeal.
“This past election, the Democrats used every personal attack, including charges of racism, against President Trump. He then won a landslide victory on a straightforward platform of economic nationalism,” Bannon wrote. “As long as the Democrats fail to understand this, they will continue to lose. But leftist elites do not value history, so why would they learn from history?”
Others in Trump’s orbit agree with him, believing there is a potential strategy in decrying identity politics and political correctness — a message that resonates with his base. But even within Trump’s circle, there are those who wonder whether Trump has gone too far and risks alienating some of the swing voters who voted for him last year with hope for change, not racial division.
“He was saying that this political correctness could lead to trying to rewrite American history. The problem is that’s not the time to bring this up,” said one Republican operative and unofficial White House adviser, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to offer a candid assessment. “Now is the time to lower the emotional temperature of the country.”
Many Republican leaders and lawmakers cringed as the president tweeted, and they sought to distance themselves from the White House. Rep. Peter T. King (R-N.Y.), a moderate, went so far as to call for Bannon to be fired.
Associates of House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said Thursday that Trump would be putting the party’s already stalled legislative agenda at risk if he continued to carry the cause of defending Confederate statues.
“It’s a pretty tough transition from ‘white supremacists aren’t so bad’ to ‘let’s do tax reform,’ ” Josh Holmes, a longtime McConnell ally, said in an interview.
But the concerns ran deeper than prospects on Capitol Hill. Some prominent Republicans said they were unsettled by the caustic nature of Trump’s comments this week and what those remarks revealed about his ability to articulate positions on race and history that unite rather than divide the country.
“What we want to see from our president is clarity and moral authority. And that moral authority is compromised when Tuesday happened,” Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.), the GOP’s lone black senator, told VICE on Thursday, referring to a news conference in which Trump said “both sides” shared blame for the violence at the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville.
Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who has worked closely with Trump in the past, underscored the growing Republican unease when he told reporters Thursday that Trump “has not demonstrated that he understands the character of this nation.”
“He has not demonstrated that he understands what has made this nation great and what it is today, and he’s got to demonstrate the characteristics of a president who understands that. And without the things that I just mentioned happening, our nation is going to go through great peril,” Corker said.
“Anything less than complete & unambiguous condemnation of white supremacists, neo-Nazis, and the KKK by the @POTUS is unacceptable. Period,” Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) wrote Thursday on Twitter.
Trump shrugged off the criticism. Earlier Thursday, he slammed Sens. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) and Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) for their criticism of his leadership in the wake of the Charlottesville tragedy.
On Twitter, Trump called Flake “WEAK on borders, crime and a non-factor in Senate,” and praised Flake’s primary challenger.
McConnell responded with a tweet later in the day, calling Flake “an excellent Senator and a tireless advocate for Arizona and our nation.”
“He has my full support,” McConnell added.
There is little public polling over what to do with Confederate monuments. An NPR-PBS survey conducted Monday and Tuesday by Marist College found that 62 percent of respondents said statues honoring Confederate leaders should remain as a historical symbol; 27 percent said they should be removed because they are offensive to some people.
That poll found a large partisan divide: Republicans prefer to keep statues by 86 percent to 6 percent, while Democrats split 44 percent for keeping them and 47 percent for removing them. Among African Americans in the survey, 44 percent favored keeping them, and 40 percent favored removal.
In his tweets Thursday, Trump appeared to equate Confederate generals Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, who commanded Southern forces in the Civil War to secede from the United States, with Founding Fathers George Washington and Thomas Jefferson as potential targets of criticism because of Washington and Jefferson’s status as slave owners — an argument he first advanced at his Tuesday news conference.
“You . . . can’t change history, but you can learn from it,” he tweeted. “Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson — who’s next, Washington, Jefferson?”
Charlottesville wasn’t the first place that white supremacists had gathered recently to oppose the removal of a Confederate statue, but last weekend was the first rally marked by deadly violence. More rallies are planned for other cities as a show of force to pressure municipal officials into leaving Civil War symbols in place.
Trump’s new enthusiasm on statues stands apart from his views last year. On the campaign trail, Trump said he agreed with the decision in 2015 by then-South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley to remove a Confederate flag from the statehouse grounds following the mass shooting by Dylann Roof, a white supremacist who killed nine African Americans at a black church in Charleston. Haley now serves as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.
“I would take it down, yes,” Trump said at the time. “I think they should put it in a museum and respect whatever it is you have to respect.”
Democrats moved aggressively on Thursday to counter what they described as a disturbing turn.
Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said Trump’s tweets Thursday represented an attempt to “divert attention away from the president’s refusal to unequivocally and full-throatedly denounce white supremacy, neo-Nazism, and other forms of bigotry.”
Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), a member of the House Judiciary Committee, and a small group of Democrats called for a congressional resolution to censure Trump. Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.) said he would seek to introduce articles of impeachment. Neither measure faces a chance of success in the GOP-controlled House.
Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) announced late Wednesday that he intends to introduce legislation after Congress reconvenes next month calling for the removal of at least a dozen statues of Confederate soldiers and politicians inside the U.S. Capitol.
That collection includes two statues selected by each state, and the presence of Confederate political and military leaders among them — as well as other figures with well-known discriminatory views — has previously attracted protests.
“There is no room for celebrating the violent bigotry of the men of the Confederacy in the hallowed halls of the United States Capitol or in places of honor across the country,” Pelosi said.
A spokesman for Ryan said congressional Republicans would not intervene to remove the statues without the states’ consent.
“These are decisions for those states to make,” said Ryan spokesman Doug Andres.
Sean Sullivan, Ashley Parker and Scott Clement contributed to this report.